When Bill Rauch was applying for the job of artistic director of the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2006, he was asked to tell the board what he planned do with the company, apart from staging classic plays. OSF already had a new-play commissioning program, but Rauch wondered how he could take that to the next level. According to his longtime colleague Alison Carey, he thought, “What would Mr. Shakespeare do? One thing he did was write the history of his people on the stage.”
So one of the first programs Rauch put in place after he got the job in 2007 was a new-play commissioning project called American Revolutions. He put Carey in charge of it, giving her a 10-year window and a mandate for 37 news plays inspired by “moments of change” in American history. So far 22 playwrights have been commissioned and six plays produced; one of them, Robert Schenkkan’s look at the first 11 months of LBJ’s accidental presidency, All the Way, is now on Broadway, in a coproduction with American Repertory Theater (Schenkkan’s sequel, The Great Society, bows in August at OSF). The other completed plays have included Culture Clash’s American Night, Naomi Wallace’s The Liquid Plain, Frank Galati’s The March, Universes’ Party People and Jonathan Moscone’s Ghost Light.
Carey has a long history with Rauch—they cofounded Cornerstone Theater Company after college in 1986, and she’s the one who took on the play-adapting duties in the company’s early itinerant years, retooling Hamlet for Marmarth, N.D., Romeo & Juliet for Port Gibson, Miss., Tartuffe for Norcatur, Kans., and so on. As head of American Revolutions, Carey’s mandate is not just to garner plays for Oregon, where five of the six written plays have so far debuted (The March premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre Company).
“Collaboration with other theatres is one of the core principles of the program,” says Carey. “When you commission that much new work, you know you’re not going to have enough stages to put them all on in a timely fashion.” What’s more, coproductions with other resident theatres, Carey says, offer “a great way to give the plays a lot of artistic homes. When you’re talking about plays done for America, having them done all over America is important.”
Having them done in commercial theatres on Broadway—All the Way is OSF’s first such foray—may not officially be part of the mission, but Rauch says it’s all to the good of the work.
“It’s really meaningful to bring the play to a commercial production in terms of it getting more exposure,” he says. “When we started American Revolutions, our fondest hope is that other people would want to produce the plays we’ve commissioned. And the fact that every American Revolutions play we’ve produced has gone on to productions in other theaters is thrilling. It’s happened more quickly and thoroughly than we could have had hoped.”
Theatres that have partnered with OSF to present commissioned plays, or simply taken them up in their second or third productions, include not only ART but Berkeley Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse and Yale Repertory Theatre. Upcoming projects include a commission from Dominique Morisseau (Detroit, Sunset Baby), in a co-commission with Minneapolis’s Penumbra Theatre, about the way African-Americans process Civil War history, and a play from Dan O’Brien (The Body of an American) about guns in America. As these topics may indicate, playwrights have a relatively wide latitude—and that’s part of the plan, Carey says.
“We didn’t want to sit here and tell the writers, ‘These are the most important moments in history,’ ” Carey says. “We have commissioned them and said, ‘Write about whatever you want.’ ”
OSF isn’t entirely hands-off, though; to prevent overlap, as well as make the process more collegial, the festival gathers the commissioned playwrights once a year to talk about what they’re working on. At the end of the 10-year commissioning project—a point by which Carey admits she doesn’t expect to see all 37 plays completed and produced, given playwrights’ schedules—American Revolutions may not have produced the theatrical equivalent of a history textbook. But then again, neither did Shakespeare.
“One of the early things we had to do was to make peace with the fact that this would be an impressionistic portrait, to set aside any pretense toward something definitive,” Carey says. “We were more excited by the variety of voices and impressions we could involve than with a long narrative.” She offers an example: that when All the Way played at OSF in 2012, Universes’ Blank Panther-themed Party People was also running. They covered adjacent years of history and related themes, but from radically different perspectives.
Indeed, while many of the plays take a multivocal, people’s-history approach to their subject, Schenkkan’s LBJ plays are quite consciously modeled on the Bard’s portraits of power.
“The way Johnson holds the stage, and that he’s a flawed, tragic hero—that’s all very conscious on Robert’s part,” says Carey, who notes that one initial idea was to commission plays about presidents in much the same way Shakespeare organized his histories plays around monarchs. The notion that a theatre known for regular revivals of classics might do its part to create a new American canon seems both appropriate and almost crazily ambitious, and not least because the name on the marquee, and presumably the biggest draw to Ashland, is Shakespeare.
Audiences may come for the Bard, Rauch admits, but they stay for the rest: “Their embrace of new work has been one of the most happy surprises of my time here.”